Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, all of which were Upheld.
Four ads for the mobile phone operator Three and the LG G4 handset: A YouTube video; a banner ad appearing on YouTube; and two pre-roll ads on YouTube.
a. A five minute YouTube video ad, seen in August 2015, opened with the following text "Warning the following film contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Viewer discretion advised. Restricted. Suitable for viewers aged 15 and over”. It featured the 15 classification. The ad featured a purple puppet, Jackson, in a car with his human companion, Steve, driving into the woods. The ad cut to a black screen with white writing which said "In 2015, Three went into the woods to test the new LG G4. This is what they found". The ad continued to follow Steve into the woods where he saw a mysterious rusting vehicle in the overgrowth. As he approached the vehicle, a doll jumped up at the window, which in turn, made Steve jump. The doll was brandished by Jackson who laughed and said “Gotcha Steve!” and “it’s only a bit of fun”. Next, Jackson was highlighting the features of the camera and viewers saw a small voodoo style doll hanging down amongst the trees to the right of the shot. Steve pointed this out to Jackson who immediately approached it with the words “I love it! Ooooo!”. Jackson pulled its leg in delight and said “Look, it’s a skellington Steve!”
Jackson and Steve were then shown sitting at a campfire by a tent. Jackson ordered a pizza with his LG G4 but it began to rain before the pizza was delivered. The fire went out and they both retreated to the tent. A black shadowy figure flashed across the screen. Steve woke in the night because he could hear mysterious laughter. He immediately discovered that Jackson was watching a laughing panda animation on his phone. Jackson explained the LG G4 screen resolution and they went back to sleep. In the morning, Steve woke up and zipped open the tent to find an animal skull hanging down from the tree nearby which made him jump again. Jackson appeared and demonstrated the selfie feature on the phone by posing with the skull. He could not understand what was wrong with Steve.
Jackson then explained that the LG G4 came with a spare battery but neither could find it. The ad cut to them walking through the woods in the dark looking for their car when they came across a house where they hoped to charge up their battery. Jackson was seen charging his phone and he could hear the sound of children. He went upstairs and saw a child sitting on a bed, who had black gunge drooling from her mouth. Jackson asked what she wanted to do, she replied "I want to play", he said, “What, with the new LG?” as she leapt towards the camera and then scuttled across the ceiling. Jackson and Steve ran back through the house as Jackson yelled “Hey Steve, isn’t this fun?” and then on through the woods, where the camera fell to the ground. The ad ended with Jackson in his home talking about the functions of the LG G4 phone and commenting that Steve had not yet made it home. The ad then showed the same black gunge dripping down from the ceiling and pooling in front of Jackson, who looked up and said "Hi there". The end of the ad showed a pack shot of the phone.
b. A banner ad which appeared on 4 August 2015 at the top of the YouTube home page and was a shorter version of ad (a) featured Jackson and Steve. Text at the beginning of the ad stated "Three went into the woods. This is what they found". The ad ended and on the left-hand side, it stated "Click to watch (if you dare)” and on the right-hand side, it included an embedded video link to ad (a).
c. & d. Two pre-roll ads on YouTube for the same product featured brief clips of ad (a) and at the end of each ad, it stated "Click to watch if you dare”, which was a hyperlink to ad (a).
The ASA received three complaints.
1. One complainant, whose 12-year-old child saw either ad (c) or (d) before a YouTube video, and clicked on the link and was taken to ad (a) and subsequently became distressed by it, challenged whether ad (a) was irresponsible and likely to cause fear and distress to children who saw it.
2. One complainant, whose 10-year-old child saw ad (b) and clicked on the link and was taken to ad (a), challenged whether ad (b) had been responsibly targeted because it was accessible to children.
3. One complainant, whose 5-year-old child saw ad (c) before a Minecraft video and became distressed by the ad, challenged whether it had been responsibly targeted because it appeared before a video which was likely to appeal to children.
1. Hutchinson 3G UK Ltd (Three) explained that in 2014, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) launched a government-backed voluntary scheme to rate YouTube videos so that viewers could decide what content was appropriate. However, the BBFC itself had acknowledged that the scheme relied on parents monitoring what their child was watching and/or using parental filters to catch any inappropriate content.
Three said they voluntarily sought a BBFC classification for the ad and displayed it prominently at the start of the ad. In doing so, they hoped that supervised children watching YouTube videos would not see the ad and that any unsupervised children would be protected by the filters set up by parents/individuals.
Three said the ad did not include any violent scenes, such as characters being attacked, and it did not show who or what the characters were running away from. Therefore, they considered ad (a) did not include any explicit “on-screen” horror.
Ad (a) included a warning at start of the video which stated “WARNING. The following film contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Viewer discretion is advised. Restricted. Suitable for viewers aged 15 and over” which was followed by the 15 rating film classification logo. In addition, text underneath the YouTube video stated “WARNING: This film is really scary. Please put down any hot drinks for your own safety”. They considered the warning in the video and on the YouTube page on which the video appeared made clear the nature of the video and that it might not be suitable for all.
Three believed those warnings were a responsible way to warn viewers that ad (a)’s content was not suitable for children, particularly on YouTube (a platform where all kinds of videos were available), where they would not expect young children to be browsing without supervision.
Three said ads (a), (c) and (d) were served to YouTube users based on “inferred targeting”. They explained that when using this type of targeting, YouTube users were not required to sign into their account, rather YouTube built a profile of each user based on that user’s viewing habits. They explained that if a user’s profile fit the targeted demographic – which in this case was over-18s – then that user could be served the ad.
Three said the warning and film classification logo was similar to those shown before films at the cinema and before television programmes and as such, they believed it was unreasonable for a child to ignore them in the ads. They felt that children who ignored such warnings were aware that they were breaking the rules, and that similar warnings displayed at the cinema and TV generally safeguarded the cinema/broadcaster from sanctions because they had acted responsibly in issuing the warning. They said that for younger children, who may not understand such warnings, it was the parents’ responsibility not to allow them to surf the internet unsupervised.
Three believed the combination of the warnings and use of inferred targeting meant they had done everything reasonably possible to ensure the ads were not seen by an inappropriate audience. They said that in cases where ads (c) and (d) were seen by younger children, the ads might have been served as a result of ‘inferred targeting’ because the ads might have reflected those children’s viewing habits. In those particular circumstances, they believed those children were less likely to be shocked by the ads.
2. Three said ad (b) appeared for one day only and was a ‘masthead’ ad on YouTube which meant that no targeting was possible. They said the nature of ad (a)’s scary content was referenced via the statement “click to watch - if you dare”. In addition, they noted that users were shown the warning, as described above in point 1, once they had clicked on ad (a). As above, they felt displaying the warning in ad (a) would have alerted children about the nature of its content and that this was a responsible way to warn YouTube users that the content was not suitable for children.
3. Three said ads (c) and (d) took substantially the same form as ad (b) and that both ads invited viewers to click on the statement “click to watch - if you dare” which they explained was a hyperlink to ad (a). Again, they noted that when viewers clicked on that link, ad (a) displayed the warning message before the rest of the ad played.
Three ensured ads (c) and (d) were automatically excluded from being shown before content not yet rated. They were also excluded from the following categories of videos: content suitable for families (i.e. child content); live streaming videos; games unless they were relevant to the target audience (e.g. teens and stay at home parents). They were excluded further from content about the following topics of videos: People & Society – religion and belief; Law & Government – military; Reference – humanities, history; World localities – Asia, West Asia, Iraq/Iran/Syria/Jordan/Russia & CIS, Middle East and northern Africa. They felt they had taken reasonable measures to avoid under-15s from seeing ad (a).
YouTube said they reviewed the ads and concluded they did not violate their Community Guidelines or Advertising policies. They explained the ads were served through their AdWords system with which they had no involvement in the uploading of the videos. They said that the responsibility for appropriately targeting ads, for which the AdWords system offered many different options, rested with the party that uploaded the video (in this case Three). Under the terms and conditions of AdWords, they said it was Three’s responsibility to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.
The ASA noted the complainant’s concerns and understood that their child had been distressed by the ad. We also acknowledged the ad included a warning that stated clearly that it was suitable for viewers aged 15 and over and that text underneath the video on the YouTube page highlighted that the content was scary.
Although we considered the ad did not show any acts of violence towards Jackson or Steve, it did create and maintain a heightened sense of suspense throughout. We considered Steve was presented as apprehensive and hyper-vigilant during the ad as to what Jackson and he might find in the woods. The suspense climaxed on several occasions during the ad such as when Steve reeled back from the mysterious rusting vehicle in the overgrowth when the doll jumped up at the window; the voodoo style doll dangling from a tree; the shadowy figure crossing in front of them while they were in the tent; and the girl in the bed who leapt towards the camera and then scurried away across the ceiling. We considered Steve’s fear at being in the woods culminated in the final scenes of the ad when he was shown screaming while running through the woods trying to escape.
We considered the ad’s content was not excessively shocking for viewers who were 15 years old and above and therefore, it was unlikely to cause distress to them. However, we considered younger viewers were likely to be distressed by some of the scenes, most notably where the girl leapt towards the camera and had blood pouring out of her mouth.
The ad included a warning to state that it contained scenes of a disturbing nature and that viewer discretion was advised. Given this, we considered that Three needed to take steps to reduce the likelihood of the ad being served and shown to younger viewers (i.e. under 15s) when they were using YouTube.
We understood that the ad had been kept away from YouTube content which was suitable for children and videos with gaming content unless they were relevant to the target audience. However, we understood from Three that the ad was subject to inferred targeting, which meant it would have been served to YouTube users whose viewing history suggested they fitted within the intended demographic: over 18s, even if they were not signed into their account. We noted the intended audience and that targeting was based on the viewing histories of YouTube users. Nevertheless, we considered there was the possibility the ad could still be served to children.
By featuring the warning in the ad, we considered Three recognised it might cause distress to younger viewers. We considered also that there could, however, be a risk that younger viewers would continue to watch the ad regardless of the warning. Moreover, we considered the ad’s prolonged and heightened sense of suspense was likely to cause undue fear and distress to children. We concluded the combination of the ad’s content, and the possibility that the warning would be ignored, meant that ad (a) was likely to cause distress to those younger viewers who saw it. We acknowledged the steps Three had taken to reduce the likelihood of children seeing the ad and we recognised that it was unlikely that they could take steps to prevent all under 15s from seeing the ad. However, we understood that it would have been possible for Three to limit the targeting of the ad so that it was only served to YouTube users signed into accounts belonging to those who had declared themselves to be over the age of 15. In that respect, we considered applying that additional option would have further reduced the likelihood of children being served and watching the ad. While Three had taken steps to target the ad, we concluded nevertheless that it had not been targeted appropriately.
On this point, ad (a) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Social responsibility) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
We understood the complainant’s 10-year-old child had become distressed by ad (a), having watched ad (b) and clicking through to ad (a. It was our understanding from Three that ad (b) could not be subjected to any means of targeting and was served to all YouTube users (regardless of whether or not they had signed into their account) on the day it appeared. Therefore, we understood that ad (a), which had been embedded at the end of ad (b), was also available to all YouTube users.
While the content of ad (b) included scenes from ad (a), we considered that its content was milder. However, ad (b) included an invitation for viewers to “click here - if you dare” and an embedded version of ad (a), which played if clicked on. From the information and content presented in ad (b), we considered children were unlikely to understand that ad (a) might be unsuitable for them, given that they had been able to access and watch ad (b). Ad (a)’s warning appeared after the user had clicked on the embedded video and as noted above, we considered that made clear that its contents were not suitable for under-15s. Notwithstanding that, ad (b) was available to all YouTube users, including those who were not signed into their account. In those particular circumstances – where all YouTube users were served ad (b) and could click through to ad (a) – we considered the phrase “click here if you dare” and the warning which appeared after users clicked through to ad (a) were insufficient to prevent YouTube users under the age of 15 from continuing to watch ad (a). For those reasons, we concluded that ad (b) had not been responsibly targeted and therefore, it breached the Code.
On this point, ad (b) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Social responsibility) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
One complainant’s child saw ad (c) before a YouTube video featuring the Minecraft character “I am Goldenpants”. We noted Three’s comments that YouTube did not regard Minecraft to be children’s content and we understood that depending on the edition of the game, PEGI (Pan European Gaming Information) had given it various age ratings from 7 to 12. Although it was our understanding that the game Minecraft did not have an audience that comprised exclusively of children, we also understood that it was, nevertheless, very popular among them. Given that, we considered YouTube videos that featured Minecraft gaming content were likely to be of particular interest to children.
We noted ad (a) could be accessed via ad (c) by way of hyperlinked text that stated “click to watch if you dare”. As stated above in point 2, we considered young children were unlikely to interpret that statement as a warning about ad (a)’s content or properly acknowledge it, given they had been served and had been able to watch ad (c), which featured much milder content.
While we recognised Three had identified and restricted content before which ad (c) should not be shown, the ad still appeared before a video that we considered went beyond broad appeal to YouTube users and was highly likely to be of appeal or interest to children. In that context, we considered that ad (c) had not been targeted appropriately and therefore, it was in breach of the Code.
On this point, ad (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Social responsibility) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
We told Three to ensure that future ads which were unsuitable for viewing by children were appropriately targeted.